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Jamaica Feeds Me: Garfield Ellis on What it Takes to Write When Talent Is Not Enough
Garfield Ellis is possibly one of Jamaica’s best-kept secrets. So, at his reading at Bookophilia, on Hope Road in Kingston, from his latest novel The Angel’s Share (Akashic Books), it wasn’t that surprising when members of the audience queried whether he had any other books.
Ellis is a reasonably prolific writer (not Kwame Dawes prolific - but then which writer is?) with four novels and a collection of short stories as well as several anthologized short stories to his credit. So while he hasn’t been hidden away, he has not been one of those writers buzzed about, though he should be.
His reading from The Angel’s Share which was shortlisted for the 2015 Una Marson Award is a novel about a father and son reconnecting as they travel across Jamaica, showed that Ellis continues to be a keen discerner of the hearts of boys and men, again presenting the beautifully flawed and textured characters found in For Nothing at All and Such as I Have both published by Macmillan Caribbean.
Like many of our other writers, Ellis left Jamaica’s shores to seek succour in the albeit cooler, but certainly greener pastures of Canada. This was the first time he was coming home in a few years, and his last major reading on the island was at the Calabash International Literary Festival in 2012.
“It’s good to be in Kingston. I haven’t been here in 3-4 years,” Ellis said to the small yet eager audience who had been quietly sating their literary appetites on his words. As soon as he finishes reading one passage he is urged to read another. But good things also come between the readings as Ellis talks about writing and his relationship with Jamaica.
“My friends tell me that after two weeks in Jamaica, you want to come back [to Canada] but obviously they haven’t been here during mango season,” Ellis said as listed mango among the things he has been happily gorging, on along with copious amounts of Red Stripe beer and jerk pork.
He explains, however, that his relationship with the island is deeper than these culinary delights.
“It’s Jamaica that feeds me, so I have to keep coming back,” Ellis says. revealing that most of his writing has taken place here. His next book, titled Land We Love, will be the first one that was largely written in Canada, although his eyes remain firmly trained on Jamaica.
He explains that Land We Love will be his first real look at violence in Jamaica has he has generally tried to steer clear of it.
“When you love the country, and you have a sensitivity, it’s very difficult to face,” Ellis said. Indeed when bursts of violence has appeared in his writing it has been sensitively treated. It’s often visceral while being deeply moving as the emotional carnage is usually a part of the package.
Ellis revealed that although he has found himself working in numerous nine-to-five jobs, his writing has been a consistent part of his life.
“It is the only thing that does not bore me, that I do every day and it does not bore me,” Ellis said. “Everything else, after 3-4 years it bores me, but writing feeds me.”
Of course, a major part of writing is learning to deal with rejection, especially, if like Ellis, you choose not to go the route of self-publishing.
He notes that even though he has written a lot, he doesn’t send his work to many publishers and the earlier version of The Angel’s Share had earned a 2-page rejection letter from the publisher. On reading that, he put the book aside for a long time then finally he realized what needed to be fixed and that’s when he understood what the publisher had been saying about the work.
“The truth is that, a lot of times, the rejection makes sense if you can see what the publisher is saying,” Ellis said.
He clearly has no delusions about writing as he says Talent will only take you so far.
“90% of what makes a novel is hard work,” Ellis said. “Talent only gives you one good book. You have to learn the rest.”